Interview with a student activist
By Fariba Amini
March 6, 2001
Gholam-Reza Mohajeri-Nejad was giving a talk at a Washington, D.C.,
gathering about Iran's student movement. He spoke about the period leading
to the July 1999 uprising, when zealots stormed the dormitories at Tehran
University. At least one student was killed and hundreds were injured.
Mohajeri-Nejad, 29, was a witness to the uprising. Now he is in the
United States to share his observations. He echoes the voices of fellow
students who are now in jail, including the Mohammadi brothers and Ahmad
Batebi, whose photo on the cover of Economist magazine became
a symbol of the new movement for democracy in Iran. Excerpts from an
Q. What do you remember from the 1979 revolution?
A. I was about 7-years old. The only thing I remember was that the Shah
had left the country and Khomeini took over. Both our neighbors had children.
One was a Mojahed and the other was a leftist. Both were executed. I also
remember the Islamic Komitehs. They were very active and would engage in
writing slogans on the walls -- among other things.
Q. When did you leave the country?
A. I left Iran via Turkey about seven months ago. I went to Germany
with help from the Heinrich Boll Institute and the Green Party. I have
been in the United States since November of 2000, touring and lecturing.
Q. Describe the events that led to the July 1999 incidents at Tehran
University. Were you a student at the time?
A: Yes, I was a student of literature at Tehran University. After the
imposed Cultural Revolution by the Islamic regime, which took place at
the universities [after 1979], a secular group was formed, called the "Iranian
Intellectual Students Group." In 1997, the first student movement
took place in Tehran's Amirabad area. Manouchehr Mohammadi was our leader
and close to 10,000 students participated.
At the beginning, our demands were non-political. We were demanding
better food and housing conditions. In fact, we were using this as a pretense.
We wanted to protest by dumping food during lunch break. Unfortunately
chicken was on the menu for that day, which was a good meal compared to
the other stuff on the weekly menu!
This was the beginning of our exposure and people abroad noticed that
there is a movement within Iran that is slowly forming. Security forces
attacked us by bayonets and other means. And reports were echoed outside
In 1998, Manouchehr Mohammadi and myself came abroad to see the political
climate within the opposition. We were really disappointed; and were accused
of having various affiliations. They threw tomatoes and eggs at us and
claimed that we were agents of the Islamic Republic.
Within Iran, Kayhan and Shalamcheh -- both ultra-conservative
dailies -- published articles claiming we were acting as spies for foreign
governments! They were also alleging we had asked for political asylum.
In fact this was an ultimatum -- it meant that we should not go back to
Iran. But we went back anyway.
They took us to the special military wing of the Intelligence Ministry prison,
where we were interrogated repeatedly. We were released after a few
days. We decided to get an office and formed the first student committee
in support of political prisoners, specifically in defense of Abbas
Amir-Entezam (the longest held prisoner of conscience in Iran).
In our first statement, we warned everyone of a gradual coup that was
taking place in Iran, whose main target was the students and intellectuals.
This was just before the serial murders of 1998. At this time, the National
Coalition of Iranian Students and Alumni, was formed from three different
groups. Our demands were secular and democratic.
In May, we went to Ahmadabad on the occasion of Dr. Mossadegh's birthday.
There were many students who were left behind due to lack of transportation.
We could not afford transportation for all. There were clashes with the
Islamic thugs and many were taken and transferred to hospitals. There were
other events like the gathering at Laleh Square. Mohammadi was abducted.
On the occasion of 2nd of Khordad, we gathered to protest the regime's
policies and defend freedom. To our dismay, the Khatami government branded
us as rebels. In fact, the government refused to meet with us. At this
time, ironically, other Islamic student groups were allowed to participate
in demonstrations. But in this gathering, we sang the Iranian national
anthem, while the other group sang the Islamic Republic's anthem. We demanded
to see a representative from Khatami's office, but they refused to meet
with us and called us rebels!
On the 9th of Khordad, we held another protest. This time, the Hezbollah
warned that if Mohammadi spoke, they would tear him to pieces. I spoke
instead, and two plain-clothe dmen came and started beating us. They put
us on a bus and transported us to prison while beating us reapeatedly.
There was marshal law all around the Tehran University, and no one was
allowed to leave or enter the university grounds. After a few days we were
Around July 5th, we had another gathering in front of the U.N. office.
And finally on July 9 (18th of Tir) after the closure of Salam newspaper,
we gathered to show our solidarity with the journalists and protest against
press censorship. It was during the night, after midnight, that we heard
noises. Photos here
Plainclothesmen of the security forces started breaking everything in
their way. They ransacked our dorm rooms and started brutally beating everyone.
From left to right they would attack us. And they threw a student from
the balcony. They also shot another one. We were all in a state of shock.
Couldn't believe our eyes. Five students were killed. And many more were
injured. Four hundred were arrested. This was their revenge for our previous
The next day, the students gathered again and we started to march towards
the university alley (Kouyeh Daneshgah). The Interior Minister had come
to speak to us, but the students took his turban and didn't allow him to
speak. We were all so angry and rightfully so.
On Sunday, there were close to 25,000 students who started walking outside
the university campus. More students joined and at this time nearly 50,000
young people had formed the largest gathering since the days of the revolution.
Unfortunately, ordinary citizens did not join us. Some of our slogans
were: " Khamenei, Khamenei, Pinochet of Iran, Iran will not become
another Chile." " Seyed Ali, have shame, leave the throne."
Or "We don't want oppressive rule, we don't want repressive clergy"
And "Culprits of this crime, before they commit suicide with special
medicine, should be executed." (Referring to senior Intelligene Ministry
official Saeid Emami who supposedly committed suicide in prison by swallowing
In and around the university campus and all over the city, there was
a state of siege. There were revolutionary guards and special university
security forces everywhere. There was no sign of the Ansar Hezbollah. They
would not dare show their faces.
Q. Were you arrested during this march?
A. Yes, It was during this protest march that the Mohammadi brothers,
Manouchehr and Akbar, and myself were arrested and taken to Towhid Prison.
We were badly beaten. . We saw and heard others being tortured as well.
I could recognize the voice of Akbar. He was severely tortured while defying
the Islamic regime and refusing to ask for a pardon.
Moreover, he has undergone constant psychological torture after being
sentenced to death. Every night his jailers would say to him, tomorrow
morning is the day. Akbar has lost the use of one kidney and his hearing
is now impaired. His sentence has been reduced to 15 years for "leading
the rebellion." He has denied all charges.
Lying on a flat bed while both of my hands and feet were tied, I was
lashed on my feet. And then the guards would put salt on my wounds and
make me walk. I could only crawl. In order to humiliate me, they would
say, "The anti-religious figure must dance, must dance".
There were usually a group of 4-5 people who would conduct the tortures.
Sometimes their mobile phones would ring in the middle of the torture session.
And they would do business deals on the phone. Sometimes, they tortured
the Mohammadi brothers in front of each other. There were so many other
brutalities against other fellow prisoners that it makes one sick.
After the torture sessions, while I was being transferred to another
room, as we were going up the stairs, a young woman shouted to me, "Do
you know what they have done to me?" In my own physical and mental
condition, I was feeling sorry for myself, and her voice was so shattering.
This image has stayed with me ever since. I can hear the moaning and
voices of so many prisoners next to my cell.
Q. What is your opinion of President Khatami and the Majlis?
A. You know, the Iranian people voted for him and we also gave him a
warning. We emphasized the importance of the separation of state and religion.
Even though Khatami's ideas were different from ours, we gave him the benefit
of the doubt and supported him.
We thought this would be a bridge for the realization of another goal.
To achieve real freedom and a secular form of government, to hold a referendum
and create a constitution that embraces everyone, where the individual
and social rights of the people are respected. That is why we voted for
Khatami. That is why over 20 million voted for him.
But we didn't see any results. Khatami does not believe in a secular
form of government. At best he wants a kind of Islamic democracy. Islam
and democracy do not mix. Islam represents an ideology.
He also says those who negate the present constitution and want a referendum
are traitors. He called the students"rebels, traitors, spies, etc";
and his popularity has plummeted drastically. Nowadays, he goes to Persepolis
and takes photos there. The same place they wanted to destroy.
He does not believe in the will of the people. People do not want a
theocracy. This regime is doomed. And they know it. The right wing of the
regime, individuals like Khamenei and Rafsanjani, are alienated and already
The problem we have is the left wing of the regime, the so-called reformists.
They claim to represent the people. They are the same group who had the
power and misused it during the first decade after the revolution. They
witnessed or had a hand in the executions and crimes against so many innocent
people and they did nothing to stop it.
Now all of a sudden they are for reform. Those like Karoubi, Mohtashemi,
Khoeiniha, Khalkhali, etc. -- they have now become the caretakers of the
people! It is all a sham, a face-lift. This regime cannot and will not
be reformed because it is corrupt from within.
We say, a new referendum must take place and the Iranian people should
have the right to choose their desired form of government, which will certainly
not be an Islamic one. People want religion out of government. They want
religion and Islam to stay pure and separate from the state apparatus.
Q. And the Sixth Majlis, what has it achieved?
A. Basically nothing. Because they are not the true representatives
of the majority of people. They were handpicked. Let's see what they promised
and what they have delivered. They promised to investigate the serial murders
case, they promised to find and try those responsible for the dormitory
incidents. They said the press would be free. They said they would make
changes to the constitution. But none of that has been realized.
Only a few people were tried and sentenced while the real instigators
of the serial murders case are still enjoying full privileges as high ranking
officials of the Islamic government. All those involved in the beatings
and killings of the students have been freed or charges have been dropped.
No changes in the constitution has taken place, and as we are witnessing,
all the free newspapers have been shut down. As a matter of fact, they
are not allowed to discuss the matter further.
Q. Some intellectuals abroad say Khatami cannot do much. He is helpless
while the main arteries of the government are in the hands of the right
A. In Iran, we do not think Khatami is a bad person. He is just not
courageous enough. It is not enough to be honest. You must show courage
in the midst of turmoil. And he has not. He had a majority of the people's
vote. Reformists and the Jebheh Mosharekat have over 105 members in the
Majlis, and Mr. Khatami speaks of a mardom-salari dini or religious democracy.
We do not believe that is possible.
Iran is not an Arab country. We have a different heritage that is not
Islamic nor religious. We are not like Arab countries; our culture and
people are different. Such a Islamic democratic state might work in other
Middle Eastern countries but not in our country. And there are those in
the West that are proponents of these ideas. We are totally against such
Q. What is your opinion on the state of the country today?
A. Today in Iran, a form of renaissance that occurred in Europe has
already taken place. A sort of social and cultural revolution has happened.
We are now in need of a political revolution. Secenty-five percent of the
people in Iran are young and they hold the key to the future. They see
the world differently and are moving very fast.
Our society is more than ever ready to enter the 21st century and I
believe with individual freedom, we will achieve the goals we have set
forth. I have a lot of confidence from being and coming from my homeland.
The era of backwardness is nearing an end and the youth of Iran are at
the forefront of this battle against ignorance. And others will follow.
Q. What is your opinion of the current movement abroad and what
do you recommend to your countrymen and women outside Iran, especially
the so-called second generation?
A. There are those who still want to use force and violence to combat
the regime; and see revenge as the only answer. We are against such mentality.
We must build an Iran not upon destruction, not upon killings and violence.
We must build an Iran that is upon goodness.
We must create a society, which will not allow torture, execution, stoning,
and humiliation of individuals. Where there is social justice for all.
Where there is freedom of pen and thought. And the gap between the haves
and havenots will slowly disappear.
There is another tendency, which uses reform to make its point -- those
who were against elections at the beginning but now not worship Khatami
as a savior. They give advice to the people that they should keep still
and wait for a miracle. They are wrong. The Iranian people are in the
middle of a fast moving stream. They are independent of these thoughts.
I will say with confidence that today the Iranian people are running
at the speed of 100 miles an hour while Khatami and his followers are running
at 20 miles an hour. People are ahead of them. Time will only tell.
And time is on our side. We just say to the Islamic regime that do not
give anymore advice to the people and do not dictate their destiny.People
are capable of being responsible for their own future, after two decades
My only recommendation to my fellow Iranians abroad is to set aside
your differences and gather around a common platform for the good of the
country. Find a common ground and work on that. The main enemy is there
and in order to fight it we must become united. That is the only way to
emancipate our homeland; to free our people.
I say to them, help your fellow Iranians by any means you can. Use
your resources, both financially and morally to help them. And forget
past differences and animosities. Now it is time to help those who are
in prison, under torture and the ones who work so hard to make a living
for mere survival.
History is the best judge. Let us not put blame on each other but let
us stay on the correct path vis-à-vis the future generations. How
can anyone of us face the people? We must stay loyal to them by supporting
Q. Is that why you have come to the U.S.?
A. Yes. You know I was in prison for six months. First, I was in solitary
in a 1m x 2m cell. I saw sunlight after three months when for the first
time I was allowed to see my family. After my release, I was fired from
my job at the Water Company. Additionally, I was expelled from the university
where I had hoped to study marketing.
That is why I left to seek the help of my fellow Iranians abroad and
bring to their attention the terrible conditions in Iran. In fact, if
I had stayed I would be in prison today.
They have arrested so many of my colleagues. They arrest them and then
release them after setting an enormous sum for bail. The regime puts pressure
on their families who are financially destitute but would do anything to
see their loved-ones set free.
Q. What is your assessment of the Iran's political future?
A. My personal feeling is that events in Iran are volcanic. And what
happens in Iran will surely affect the Middle East region. The majority
of people do not want this Islamic form of government. And unfortunately
a peaceful transition may not take place as we all desire.
If this situation continues, people will determine their destiny in
the streets. If Iran were not rich like some other third world countries,
the situation would have been different. But we have a very rich nation
with lots of resources. Tourism, oil, natural resources; we have the four
seasons, rich soil, and on top of all that, a highly talented youth which
comprise more than two thirds of the population who have tremendous will
power and have learned a great deal from the past.
We are not less capable than countries such as post-war Germany or Japan.
We have the potential and all the tools to create a society where there
is equal opportunity for all citizens, even better than many European countries.
We must utilize the resources outside the country such as the thousands
of experienced and highly educated Iranians and fill this economic and
technological gap that exists with the people inside Iran.
Do you realize that only 15,000 people hold 70% of the total wealth
of the country? Do you know that there is only one medical assistant per
750,000 students? With so much waste by the Islamic foundations (bonyads)
, which are in control of the country's wealth and are not even accountable
to anyone, with mismanagement and corruption at all levels, we must work
together to establish a government which will allow the flourishing of
a healthy economy.
And for the achievement of this goal, we need a free society. I have
faith that as a nation we are ready and able.
Akbar Mohammadi in a recent letter to Ayatollah Shahroudi, the head
of Islamic Judiciary wrote: "Mr. Shahroudi, my confinement in prison
over a period of 20 months while being innocent of all charges, is a total
injustice even in the realm of your own judicial system. For those who
have kept me in prison and who have never even allowed me to defend myself
in a real court of law, this act is inhuman.. But if there is an Almighty
God who listens to the cry of the innocent, I will come out as a victor.
In the history of mankind, no injustice has been unanswered. The reason
for my imprisonment by the Intelligence Ministry is that I have resisted
torture, and I am the brother of Manouchehr Mohammadi.
"It should be recognized that I, Akbar Mohammad and others, will
continue our resistance at any cost. Even though, I have lost the use
of my kidney, even if I have lost my hearing, if my bones ache from constant
beatings, and I am not able to walk easily, to prove my innocence and defend
my rights, in this Evin prison, I shall still cry out to the world, 'Long
live Iran. Long live freedom. Justice shall prevail."